In the year since his surprise election, the Argentine-born pontiff has caught world attention by suggesting he might ease the Catholic Church’s strict rules on divorce, birth control, female priests and same-sex unions.
Off-the-cuff comments such as “who am I to judge?” about gays have contrasted with the more distant style of his predecessors John Paul and Benedict.
But while his words and public appearances have struck a chord with many Catholics, anyone hoping for a quick turnaround on those headline-grabbers is likely to be disappointed, said Boston College theologian Richard Gaillardetz.
“There is a critical mass of Catholics who want change,” said Gaillardetz, president of the Catholic Theological Society of America. “In the minds of many people, substantial change has to mean change on what I call the hot button troika – birth control, women’s ordination and same-sex marriage.
“This pope has undertaken very substantial change, but it is not necessarily going to focus on specific doctrines,” he added.
Instead, say Gaillardetz and others, Francis seeks a deeper shift in the Church to become what he calls a “field hospital” serving the needs of the faithful rather than an inward-looking institution more concerned with its own rules and procedures.
Either way, he seems be facing the religious version of what political scientists call a “revolution of rising expectations”, the moment when people think their distant leaders are listening to them and start to ratchet up their demands for change.
HUMANAE VITAE’S WARNING
Older Catholics remember when expectations of a Vatican approval for contraception soared in the 1960s, only to be dashed in 1968 when Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae Vitae surprised many churchgoers by upholding the traditional ban.
Many believers deserted the pews and priests quit the clergy. Large numbers of those who stayed began simply to ignore Vatican teaching on sex.
Francis gently pushed back last week at expectations of rapid change, telling an interviewer he was not “a kind of superman or a star” but just “a normal person”.
People walk past a street art mural showing Pope Francis as a superman, flying through the air with his white papal cloak billowing out behind him and holding a bag bearing the word “Values”, by Italian street artist Maupal in downtown Rome near the Vatican on January 29, 2014. Flying forward with his fist raised, the heroic pontiff — crucifix swinging in the wind — carries his trademark black bag, with the word “values” written across it in white. (Gabriel Bouys/AFP/Getty Images)
“It’s not a question of changing the doctrine but going deeper so that pastoral concern takes into account situations and what can be done for people,” he added.
The international reform group We Are Church has said it is worried reforms were being held up by “strong resistance in the power structure”. It also asked Rome to rehabilitate liberal priests and theologians disciplined in recent decades.
These demands are coming to the fore now because Francis has encouraged Catholics to discuss sensitive issues more openly and even sent out an unprecedented survey to hear their views.
“He has basically reopened a debate that was shut down during the previous two pontificates,” said Italian theologian Massimo Faggioli, a historian of the 1962-1965 Second Vatican Council that launched reforms Francis wants to revive.
Survey results published in Europe showed how large a gap exists between Church teaching and Catholics’ lives.
“Church statements on premarital sexual relations, homosexuality, on those divorced and remarried, and on birth control … are virtually never accepted, or are expressly rejected in the vast majority of cases,” the German bishops conference said in its blunt report to the Vatican.
It said many do not understand the rule that divorced Catholics cannot remarry in church and must be denied the sacraments if they opt for a civil ceremony. Many churchgoers see this as “unjustified discrimination and … merciless.”
But it also said most Catholics upheld the ideal of lifelong faithful heterosexual marriage and opposed abortion.
A poll from the Pew Research Center in Washington last week showed Francis was “immensely popular among American Catholics” but many still differed with some Vatican teachings.
“Large majorities of Catholics say the Church should allow Catholics to use birth control (77 percent), allow priests to get married (72 percent) and ordain women as priests (68 percent),” the Pew report said.
But the concerns recorded in Washington are not universal. Roman Catholicism, by far the world’s largest Christian church, has everyone from Western professionals to African peasants among its 1.2 billion members.
“In this global church, there are different expectations in different places,” noted Faggioli, who teaches at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota.
Catholics in Africa, where the Church is growing rapidly, have more traditional views about women’s roles. Many priests there are concerned that looser divorce rules would undercut their decades-long preaching against polygamy.
Homosexual sex is illegal in 37 countries in Africa and Catholic and Protestant clergy say the new acceptance of gays in Western churches makes them less credible than Muslim preachers who say their whole faith condemns homosexuality.
Gaillardetz said the big change Francis wants is to spread a new interpretation of the Second Vatican Council, which set out to turn the tightly hierarchical Church into a more horizontal structure sharing responsibility and power between Rome and national churches and between clergy and laity.
“This will ultimately have widespread consequences, but they’re not the kind that happen one year in,” he said.
Impatient critics are looking ahead to a synod of bishops in Rome in October to discuss the survey results. But it will not take any decisions, leaving that for a second synod next year.
“He’s telling bishops and priests: you can speak out and we should listen. This is a big change,” Faggioli said. “Some are ready to do that, like the Germans. But others, like the U.S. and Italy, aren’t ready yet.”
Under Popes John Paul and Benedict, synods were scripted sessions with little debate. If the bishops don’t open up this time, he said, it will be “a major blow” for Francis.
“The high expectations he has raised refocus everything that happens in the Church onto him,” the theologian said.
While many bishops still seem cautious about following Francis’s example, Faggioli said surprises could still come.
“The preparations for Vatican II from 1959 to 1962 were a huge disappointment, but when the bishops arrived in Rome, they found their voice,” he said. “Maybe when they gather for the synod, a new chemistry will start brewing.”
– Tom Heneghan, Reuters religion editor. Additional reporting By Tom Heneghan.